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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), in A minor for piano & orchestra, Op. 43

Born into an aristocratic Russian family that was gradually running out of money, Rachmaninov studied composition at the Moscow conservatoire. He had several early works performed to acclaim, especially the famous Prelude in C# minor, and by the age of forty Rachmaninov had composed 2 symphonies, 3 piano concertos, several operas, and much vocal and chamber music. In 1917 came the revolution, and everything changed. Rachmaninov left Russia to go to Scandinavia and then the USA, where he eventually settled. But he had lost his family estates and the royalty income from his compositions (neither Russia nor the USA had signed up to the Berne Convention on copyright) and was virtually penniless. He had to turn to playing the piano for a career, and fitted in composing in his summer vacations. In his last 20 years he wrote little, the main compositions being the 4 th piano concerto, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances and his 3 rd symphony.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is in effect his fifth and last piano concerto, and like the others was written for himself to play. In structure it is a unique blend of variations and standard 3-movement concerto – it is not obvious why he chose to call it a “rhapsody”. The theme was written by the 19 th century violinist, composer and showman Niccolo Paganini. Paganini was an amazing character, being both a superb technical violinist and a brilliant performer, cultivating a powerful image with his long black hair and eccentric behaviour, who had no wish to quell rumours that he was in league with the devil. The theme comes from one his caprices for solo violin, where it is already subject to a dozen or so variations. It is a very fertile tune for creating variations as many composers since have realised, such as Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Curiously the original theme is from Paganini's 24 th caprice, and Rachmaninov write 24 variations in this work. Also Rachmaninov makes reference to the plainsong Dies Irae chant (part of the Mass for the Dead) in his rhapsody – perhaps another reference back to Paganini?

The order of events is : a nine-bar Introduction, first variation, then the theme itself, then the remaining 23 variations and a coda. The way the variations are grouped together provides a bigger structure, which reflects a normal 3-movement concerto. The first few variations establish a crisp, sparkling mood, though the last of this group is more reflective. Then a group of variations provide contrast by including the Dies Irae theme, at first quietly on the basses, but then on full orchestra. This is followed by a cadenza-like variation for solo piano, and then a group of variations in triple time (up to this point they have been 2-in-a-bar, like Paganini's original theme). This concludes the first “movement”. The “slow movement” can be seen as the next three variations, all slow, and culminating in the well-known glorious tune of the 18 th variation, which is the Paganini theme upside-down and with a distorted rhythm. The final section is again fast and brilliant, and after hints of the Dies Irae theme it returns with full force at the end. The last couple of notes seem like a sly wink to Paganini, as if to say “Thanks for your tune, my friend!”

Symphonic Dances, Op.45
I. Non allegro
II. Andante con moto (tempo di Valse)
III. Lento - allegro vivace

Born the son of an aristocratic family in Tsarist Russia, Rachmaninov combined the careers of composer and pianist. His early composing career was almost stopped dead by the disastrous reception of his first symphony. The work was slated by the critics; Rachmaninov destroyed the score, and it was never performed again in his lifetime. It took him several years to recover his confidence, and in the following years he wrote his most popular works - the piano preludes, the second and third piano concertos and second symphony. Also from these years came his fine Vespers for unaccompanied choir. This phase of his life was ended by the Russian revolution of 1917, after which Rachmaninov lived as an exile, first in Switzerland and then America. His later career was almost wholly as a concert pianist - probably the finest of his age. He found little time to compose, and only a handful of works were written during these later years. The Symphonic Dances were his last composition of all, written in 1940, when he was convalescing in the USA after a minor operation. The premiere took place in January 1941 at Philadelphia, with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The critics were not enthusiastic, but the dances have gradually gained in stature after Rachmaninov's death, and are now recognised as among his finest works.

The first movement, marked non allegro - not fast - opens quietly. After a few introductory bars, a motto theme of short crisp chords is followed by a march-time tune based on falling triads. The orchestration is unusual from the start - notice the tambourine and piano in the texture. The central section of the movement features a long melancholic tune on the saxophone, full of aching nostalgia. The tune is played again, this time on unison strings with piano and harp accompaniment. The music picks up speed for a varied reprise of the march section. A curious hymn-like coda, accompanied by the glockenspiel, is based on the motto theme of his first symphony - the one whose failure had nearly killed his early career. Since that symphony had been destroyed (it was not published until 1947, after his death, in an edition based on surviving orchestral parts) this was a purely private reference; its quotation here is enigmatic.

The slow movement is harmonically unstable, and is basically a waltz, but with sinister and unsettling implications. The main tune has chromatic decoration by the wind players, and even when it works up to a passionate climax, it shifts in and out of keys most disconcertingly.

The last movement is, like the first, in three parts with a slow introduction. The outer sections are based on two themes, both derived from religious melodies. One is based on the Latin Dies Irae plainsong, while the other, first on cor anglais and later on violas, is faster with syncopated cross rhythms. This tune comes from a Russian orthodox chant Blessed is the Lord, which he had already used in his earlier Vespers. In the middle section, the tempo slows for a cello version of the Dies Irae and a passionate but highly chromatic climax. The final section sees the two main themes battling for dominance; the Dies Irae works up to a huge climax, but the vital cross-rhythms of the second theme go even further in power, and drive the work to its exhilarating conclusion.

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
I. Largo : Allegro moderato
II. Allegro motto
III. Adagio
IV. Allegro vivace

In the Autumn of 1906, Rachmaninov left Moscow with his wife and daughter to settle, quietly and incognito, in Dresden. He was leaving Moscow (where social life tended to begin at midnight and end at dawn) in order to find more time for composing. "I have escaped from my friends," he told an acquaintance, "Please don't give me away!".

The plan worked; for the first time since the disastrous failure of his first symphony in 1897, he felt the confidence to tackle purely orchestral works. The second symphony, and "The Isle of the Dead" were both written in Dresden during 1907. The symphony was premiered in St.Petersburg in January 1908, with Rachmaninov himself conducting.

The second symphony is his largest work for orchestra; is written in the usual four movements, and is scored for a normal large romantic symphony orchestra.

The introduction begins with a motto theme on lower strings, followed by a winding violin tune, which twists and turns into an intense climax. It subsides, and the Allegro starts quietly. The main theme is similar in feel to the introduction, and soon builds to a climax. A short clarinet solo leads to a sighing second theme, to which strings soon add a chattering triplet figure. A third big theme for strings leads to rest and quiet. The development of these ideas begins with a solo violin, and goes on to several passionate climaxes. Eventually the original themes are rediscovered, and a coda based on the chattering triplet figure leads to an abrupt close.

The second movement is a fast brittle scherzo. A motto theme is announced at once on horns, which is taken up by the violins in a closely related but sprightlier dancing figure which dominates this movement. The scherzo refrain is interrupted by several contrasting slower episodes, notably a long flowing string melody (which is introduced by a rocking figure on the woodwind) and a quite intricate fugal section, introduced by the second violins alone. At the end, the movement fades to silence ...

... and the glorious Adagio unfolds. There are two main tunes here - the upward-striving string theme which opens the movement, and the rhapsodic clarinet solo which shortly follows. Analysis is pointless; just sit back and enjoy Rachmaninov at his best!

The finale opens with a wild burst of energy, in a 12/8 rhythm like an Italian Tarantella. A big string theme offers contrast, and there are reminiscences of themes from previous movements. Don't be surprised when the adagio makes a reappearance for a few bars! But it is the vigorous tarantella which carries the day, and drives the symphony to its exuberant conclusion.

Symphony No.3 in A, Op.44
I. Lento - Allegro moderato
II. Adagio - Allegro vivace - Adagio
III. Allegro

When Rachmaninov's third symphony was premiered on 6th November 1936, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, its somewhat lukewarm reception depressed Rachmaninov greatly. He knew he had written a really good symphony, but the public and critics insisted on misunderstanding it. Those who were expecting the easy listening style of the second piano concerto found it too modern; everyone else thought it too old-fashioned. Both views were ill-judged, and the symphony is even today under-played and under-estimated.

It is certainly more subtle, more chromatic, and more dissonant than his most popular works, and its three movement form is unusual and original, but it is rooted in tradition, and Rachmaninov is as concise here as he is in the Paganini Rhapsody - every note and phrase has a purpose and meaning, but it is not easy to grasp at a first hearing.

The first movement opens with a motto theme, short, quiet and slow. This is brushed aside by the full orchestra who give us two main themes. The first is full of Russian nostalgia, and after a spiky triplet interlude the second appears, warm and rich, and then transformed into a powerful and assertive statement. The entire opening section is repeated, and then the violas introduce the development section. Their fast triplets drive it forward, and the orchestration and tonality gets ever more complex. After the xylophone joins in there is a big climax and collapse of energy, followed by a strong statement of the motto theme on the brass. Soon the music works back to a restatement of the original themes, but transformed in mood - the rich second theme is now bare and hollow. The movement ends with the motto theme, very sadly.

The central movement combines slow movement and scherzo, and is introduced and concluded by the motto theme. A solo violin plays a key role here, and its strange descending theme is a cornerstone. The first part of the movement is a fine adagio, but part way through it transforms into a sparky scherzo, which slithers around the keys trying to find a theme. This section is constantly on the move, changing key, tempo and time in a very "modern" way. It eventually unwinds and leads back to the adagio and the solo violin's theme, though much shortened.

The finale launches directly with brisk energy, which seems to change key and time as frequently as the scherzo did. After a second slower tune, the orchestra launches into a fugal development and an energetic workout, sometime loud, sometimes quiet, but always full of drive. There is an abridged restatement of the original tunes, and an odd quiet section based on the motto theme. This leads into a gradual acceleration and build up of excitement to the driving and positive conclusion.

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